Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
As baseball legend has it, in 1950, 13-year-old Kathryn “Tubby” Johnston asked her mother to cut her hair so she could don the uniform of the King’s Dairy Little League team and play ball. After playing several games as a boy, by mid-season she let her coach and teammates know about her secret, but her prowess kept her safe at first base despite the jeers from opposing players and their parents.
Johnston came to mind when I saw the Miami Marlins tweet announcing “OUR gm,” accompanied by a change to the team’s profile picture: a close-up shot of Kim Ng, the team’s newly announced general manager – the first woman to take such a position in Major League Baseball. There were, of course, a handful of the usual garbage responses that often permeate Twitter when the subject is women and…most anything.
But the overwhelming majority greeted the news with a sense of celebration and a resounding chorus of “It’s about time!” that positions Ng as a long overdue pathbreaker, a baseball lifer who has worked as an executive in the MLB for over three decades, serving as assistant director of baseball ops for the Chicago White Sox (1990-1996), assistant general manager for both the Yankees (1998-2001) and the Dodgers (2002-2011 and senior vice president of baseball ops in the MLB’s Commissioners Office since 2011.
As the highest-ranking woman in baseball history, Ng now has more than a few firsts connected to her name, including that of the first Asian-American GM.
This past summer, in the midst of baseball’s revival in the moment of Covid-19, Alyssa Nakken, the first full-time female coach in MLB history, also became the first woman to coach on the field. Her San Francisco Giants’ jersey was sent to the Hall of Fame after the game in recognition of the historic moment.
Who will be the second? No one has a good answer.
It can take a long time for historic firsts to turn into real visibility, especially among the ranks of coaches, referees, officials, arena management and front office. Jackie Robinson made his historic at bat in 1947; the Dodgers didn’t field a majority black team until 1954. And even successful mechanisms designed to combat the problem for athletes have, unfortunately, not yielded similar results for executives and coaches.
One of the risks of the “first” being the “only,” as seen just this week when the Houston Texans fired VP of Communications Amy Palcic, the first and only woman to head the PR of an NFL team, is that apparent progress can be erased in one fell swoop.
That’s why the stories that surround questions of “why did this take so long” – stories that make the question rhetorical, at best – should not just focus on the pathbreaker, the one who ascends to the position of the person, but also whether or not others follow. Yes, the appointment of Ng by none other than Marlins CEO Derek Jeter is historic, but how do we have more of this?
Kathryn Johnston’s unprecedented turn in Little League was the first and last of its sort for decades, not at all the kind of pathbreaking moment for girls in baseball that she perhaps hoped. At the end of her first and only season, Little League put the so-called Tubby Rule into effect, helping to ensure that another girl wouldn’t take to the field until 1972, when Maria Pepe pitched three games for Hoboken New Jersey’s Young Democrats. Pepe’s stint brought about both the ire of Little League higher-ups and the attention of the National Organization for Women, which successfully waged a lawsuit in 1974 that paved the way for girls to again play.
Pepe’s lawsuit came at the heels of Title IX, which often takes center field in our conversations regarding equality in America’s teams, mandating that educational institutions create equal opportunity for athletes, male and female alike. Yet it stops short of thinking about what might come next, especially because of the impact it had on women in positions of leadership in sports.
Case in point: when Title IX went into effect, over 90% of all women’s college teams had women as head coaches, according to NCAA data cited by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport and elsewhere. In today’s conferences, that percentage has fallen to well under half, prompting legendary basketball coach Muffet McGraw to declare – with some controversy – last year that she wouldn’t hire any more men as assistant coaches.
McGraw posed the question to the New York Times: “All these millions of girls that play sports across the country, we’re teaching them great things about life skills, but wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to watch how women lead?” The numbers don’t look good for athletic directors (the college equivalent of a front office) either – and they’re abysmal for women who are looking to coach male athletes, college or pro.
Professional sports leagues, which aren’t held to Title IX mandates, have put some strategies in place, the NFL’s Rooney Rule and MLB’s Selig Rule – rules named for high-powered white men who hoped to change the faces of their respective sports by influencing hiring practices to create more widespread diversity. In 2016, Roger Goodell announced that the NFL’s diversity rules would also require that women be interviewed for executive-level jobs. Major League Baseball established a Diversity Pipeline Program the same year to “identify, develop and grow the pool of qualified minority and female candidates for on-field and baseball operations positions throughout the industry.”
This action pushed its letter grade from The Institute on Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s (TIDES) annual Racial and Gender Report Card, which annually assesses the hiring practices of professional sports, to a B+ in racial diversity while its gender equity grade flounders with a C. According to Brenda Elsey, professor of history at Hofstra University and co-author, along with Jermaine Scott, of the Fare Network’s report on racial and gender representation in the MLS, NWSL and US Soccer, we should be cautious when looking at these grades.
“Not all data is created equally,” she told me, noting that TIDES changed its A+ rating of the MLS to a C- on the issue of gender hiring last month, including an F for gender hiring of MLS team vice presidents. “There are ways to look at the administration and governance of sports teams and associations – actual power brokerage – that needs to be analyzed and assessed and rigorously designed.” Qualitative data, says Elsey – the documenting of people’s actual work experiences – is not used nearly enough. “Data can cover up just as much as it can reveal,” she warned.
Kim Ng isn’t a new hire, a new recruit, in baseball; she isn’t part of heightened efforts in recent years to create a more inclusive culture and environment. She’s spent well over half her life in the industry, coming up through different channels than those of so many of her colleagues because she has never played the game, which remains part of the old school qualifications that predate the Moneyball era but still culturally persist.
The answer, then, to “why did it take so long,” should, amidst the well-deserved celebration of her hire, continue to rock us to our core.
We know why it took so long. And the answer isn’t good.